Internal Communications is PR. Just ask Stripe.

Internal communications is public relations. The words ‘internal’ and ‘public’ are contradictory, but the concept is true. Employee communications is no longer a function of human resources or people teams. Why? We live in a culture centered around information leaks. What’s communicated internally is shared publicly, sometimes within a matter of minutes. Internal comms is external comms. At the same time, external comms is internal comms.

Both functions (internal and external comms) shifted tremendously over the last decade. The breaking news we read about the world’s largest organizations comes from leaked internal all-hands meetings, existing employees, and forwarded company emails. One of the best examples of this is when journalists covered a Meta all-hands before it actually took place and coverage continued publishing while it was still in progress. Press discussed return to office policies at some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions before leadership actually finalized their plans. Employees in the modern workplace frequently look at what is said about the company externally with the same expectation of truth as internal communications.

What this looks like in practice

Internal and external communications existing separately today seems like a time capsule to a different time given today’s hyper-connected world. Uniting internal and external communications can be much more uncomfortable in practice than in theory. It requires a new level of transparency and proactivity. Stripe’s recent layoff announcement is a perfect example. Stripe published the internal email from the CEO outlining the challenging decisions to reduce the company’s workforce, transitional support for those impacted, and a plan ahead for those still employed. In articles covering the news, Stripe’s CEO is described as humane, employees impacted are empathetic, and some even credited the challenging economic climate. From a communications perspective, that is likely the best possible outcome given the situation.

Making the case

Separating internal and external communicators no longer serves anyone. Here are three core reasons why internal comms and external comms work best in unison:

  1. PR teams are trained to calculate risk and plan for it.
    Understanding employee perspectives is core to effective internal communications. You need to anticipate what employees need to know, questions that might arise, and how they are most likely to retain the information. One of the biggest risks associated with internal comms is a leak or, more specifically, a disgruntled employee airing grievances externally. What if the worst happens? Then what? Anticipating risks internally only gets you so far. Comms in a crisis requires understanding varied perspectives, whether that be among press, target audiences, or employees, and when or how to respond–all areas that external comms teams live in.
  2. External comms requires a contextual understanding of impact.
    PR leaders are responsible for understanding who is saying what and how many people are reading it (among other things). In a crisis, you can only determine if or how to respond if you know the scope and impact of the crisis. There’s a common phrase, “don’t listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Understanding the views of the loudest voices in the room is critical, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a required response. Understanding the impact of the loudest voices in the room prompts action. External communicators understand broader context, market influences, and impact through data.
  3. Building a brand is a recruiting and retention function.
    Studies show that people consider a brand’s reputation before they consider employment. Exactly 50% of candidates say they wouldn’t work for a company with a bad reputation, even for a pay increase. A whopping 92% of people would consider changing jobs if offered a role with a company with an excellent corporate reputation. The way that comms teams handle internal and external news (positive or negative) reflects directly on the employer brand. Building a brand requires consistency across internal and external channels. If done well, it becomes your company’s most effective recruiting and retention tool.

TL;DR

Internal and external communications teams are transforming. Today’s workforce and media landscape require a new level of transparency and proactivity. To be truly effective, you need to acknowledge that internal is evolving into PR. Comms leaders are responsible for understanding who is saying what and how many people are reading it. The only way to manage risk, understand context and impact, and build a brand effectively, is to start with data. Decisions about your brand are only as wise as the data behind them.

Readership in a crisis: 4 ways PR teams use Memo for Crisis Communications

In today’s hyperconnected world, crises can erupt in an instant. A single tweet, memo, or decision can ignite a firestorm of negative press.

Other times, it’s a slow burn. You hear murmurings of a reporter working on a piece, you get the call for a statement, then you wait.

Either way, a crisis news cycle can mean late nights and lost weekends fielding emails from the C-suite, panicked over the negative stories, and desperate to put out the fire. But just how big are the flames? Are they getting bigger, or starting to die down? Is there even much of a fire at all?

Knowing exactly how many people are reading coverage during a negative news cycle can answer those questions and feel like a lifesaver. Article readership data (i.e. unique visitors to an article) brings weekend-saving clarity and direction for crisis communications and rapid response. Below are 4 ways Memo customers incorporate readership into crisis comms.

To learn more about how accurate readership can uncover the true impact of a crisis, check out Memo’s approach to comms measurement.

1) Verify the extent of a crisis story with article readership

The Comms teams I’ve spoken to all say something similar: “we know when a crisis story is bad, and we know when it’s nothing, but we don’t know about everything in the middle.” 

Just because a national outlet like the New York Times or Forbes published a negative article about your brand doesn’t mean everyone will read it, regardless of what your CEO might fear. For example, these three headlines (in alphabetical order) are from the same publication. One has 2,000 readers, another 200,000, and another 2,000,000 readers:*

“FedEx driver dumped packages at least six times in ‘debacle’”
“Jury awards woman Walmart accused of shoplifting $2.1 million”
“Outages at Slack, other websites paralyze businesses”

This 1,000x differential in article readership is not unusual. (To learn why see our report “3 graphs that illustrate the problem with PR impressions.”

At its very least, having article readership readily available when a story breaks can be, as someone I spoke to once put it, “a chill pill for my CEO.” If the story isn’t gaining traction, responding could only create more noise and awareness than the story had initially.

And at its best, readership provides crucial guidance into managing a crisis after a story breaks, which brings me to my next point:

2) Form a response and allocate resources based on the outlets and angles fueling the fire

When formulating a response in a crisis news cycle, it helps to know what to respond to. In some cases, this could be what’s getting the most attention.

For example, let’s take Starbucks. As many positive articles they receive about the return of the pumpkin spice latte this season, there lately seem to be just as many (if not more) about its baristas moving to unionize. When it comes to hot-button issues, the spin on a story can create a narrative with a life of its own. Take a look at the following headlines:

“Starbucks CEO to unionizing baristas: ‘Why don’t you go somewhere else?’” (New York Post)
“Starbucks Just Fired a Union Organizer for Allegedly Breaking a Sink” (Vice)
“Starbucks weighing better benefits but says they could exclude union workers” (CNBC)

All of these articles came from the same news cycle only a few days apart, but there’s an 8x difference in readership between the least-read and most-read headline.* This data reveals which narratives resonate most with the public, and could help Starbucks target and prioritize a response plan. Should the rapid response team recommend a clarifying statement from the CEO? Or talk to HR about the alleged sink incident? Or get a spokesperson out to CNBC? 

3) Benchmark readership on a crisis internally and against competitors

Comparing the extent of a crisis news cycle against others like it helps communications teams create a benchmark that contextualizes the severity. Put another way, it tells you how bad is bad.

I’ve seen Memo customers do this in a couple of ways. In some cases, they’ll compare readership on a recently concluded news cycle to past crisis events. This allows teams to, for example, track the effect of a response on how quickly issues were contained relative to the past. 

In other cases, they’ll look at crises weathered by competitors or industry comps. Just as share of readership on proactive press shows the initiatives working for your brand and competition, readership share on negative press can reveal which brands are getting hit hardest in the press. For industry-wide crises (e.g. big tech antitrust, cryptocurrency sell offs, etc), this type of readership benchmarking also contextualizes how your company is faring compared to competitors.

4) Identify crisis news readership trends to better equip your team in the future

The first rule of crisis comms is actually talking about crisis comms. Plan for a crisis in advance. Errant tweets, leaked memos, and unpopular decisions will happen. Understanding how past news cycles have played out – the trajectory over time, the readership on spokespeople responses, what outlets and reporters had the biggest impact – can help crisis communications teams anticipate their needs.

As an example, Memo’s insights team found that for one brand’s recent negative news cycle, 79% of readership was driven by articles published within the first three days. The average readership on each article published after that three-day window slowly declined each day. Given the recurring nature of this type of story, the Comms team can operate with clearly defined timing parameters in the future.

To learn more about how accurate readership can uncover the true impact of a crisis, check out Memo’s approach to comms measurement.

*Due to contractual obligations, Memo cannot publicly release our publications’ article-level unique visitor data, so I use differentials and anonymized publications where appropriate.